Provide school food for over 40 different nationalities? Understand the importance of intercultural dialogue? Become an integrated part of a school team?

Food services for the International School of Helsinki

Peter Welch is Head Teacher at the International School of Helsinki. It's a day school with 360 students aged between 3 and 19. There are over 40 nationalities and in this shifting population one third of the students move each year.

Peter has travelled a lot in his professional career. He admits he's a tricky client for any service provider. We phoned him to find out more.


How would you describe your food service?

"Under Finnish law we're required to provide a free school lunch. We also have a mid-morning snack service for the youngest children and a kiosk.

The link between good nutrition, physical development and healthy minds is pretty clear. What children eat at lunch impacts how they perform in class. School food is no longer a can of coke and a plate of chips and we do a lot of work on health and nutrition in class. The restaurant therefore needs to have a good dialogue with students.

At lunch we offer a salad bar, a vegetarian and a meat option. Then come the carbs. There are no desserts or sugary drinks so the food's already healthy on the counter. We also have a wide range among our students, from spicy Indian food to milder Nordic tastes. This needs to be catered for.

This is a school with a family-type of atmosphere. A member of the restaurant staff even said she was looking forward to the end of the holidays so she could meet the kids again. That's good to hear."

 "The link between good nutrition, physical development and healthy minds is pretty clear."


What was important for you when looking at suppliers?

"Three things were key.

First of all, a good client relationship. Good communication is a prerequisite here and before awarding the contract we took in three different bids. We wanted all of them to really understand how distinctive we are.

Then there's quality. Quality in terms of health and taste, but also the strength of the supplier company and it's supply chain. We appreciate local first produce, for example responsibly-sourced meat. The older students are very much aware of these types of questions.

My experience is that there's never been a better understanding of the importance of school food. It's almost like there's been a revolution over the last ten years. Or put it like this, if the food's not good the parent meeting is going to be packed!

Finally, cost per meal. A good supplier has to be competitive.


What are you most pleased with today?

I'm most pleased with the relationship with the team working here. It's not like a revolving door, with personnel changing all the time, as can be the case with outsourced services. We have a permanent catering manager who knows us and knows the kids.

It's the same team this year as last year and it shows they like coming to work. Stability is important and a supplier needs to be able to tell us who our key person will be.

I've eaten enough school food in my career to know that the quality of the food is closely linked to the engagement of the canteen manager and staff."

"We have a permanent catering manager who knows us and knows the kids."


What would you like to improve?

Things that should always be improved. 

Our business is education and we want to be able to focus more and more on that task.

The link between food and education is important and you've got to continuously work on a good relationship with students and student councils. You have to make things visible, not least because we all have a tendency to complain about food in institutions.

A supplier needs to listen to student feedback and close the loop, taking note of suggestions and making changes where appropriate.


Which KPIs are most important to follow up on?

Taste. Menu variety. Cost per serving and service friendliness. 

You're not going to make everyone happy so it's interesting to follow the number of high-school students who eat lunch. These students have off-school privileges but if they eat lunch elsewhere they have to pay. Approximately 70% take the free lunch, which is pretty good, and the higher that goes the better.


What advice would you give to other buyers of food services?

Go taste the food. And while you're there, go and ask students about their opinion in an attempt to be a more objective.

Get the client relationship right. Make sure the supplier takes your call, listens and understands what you're saying. A good service is about learning what's working and what's not. It's another type of learning journey based on constant reflection.

Student diets are getting more specific. It's like we're all becoming foodies which means labels on the counter are more and more important. You need to clearly communicate what's in the food − and what's not.

Finally, make sure that the restaurant team's friendly with people who smile, make eye contact and generally like being around children. Social relationships are important in a school. Very important.


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